Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Bill and Melinda are Terrified

The richest couple in America are terrified at the state of failure in our nation’s public schools. “We are in a state of emergency.” That is the message from a recent Oprah Winfrey interview with Bill and Melinda Gates. (As an aside, I note with disapproval that Oprah’s webmaster(s) have chunked an article that could be on a single, printable page into 13 different parts so readers are involuntarily subjected to 13 different web-advertisements.)

The premise of fear is selling big now on the educational speaking circuit. I am not pointing this out because I don’t think we should be concerned, I certainly do agree many of our schools are not the places of engaged learning our students need and deserve. However, what we see in part of this TV program and accompanying website from Oprah includes some (sadly typical) misuse of educational statistics. The opening paragraph begins:

Just 20 years ago, American students were among the best in the world, routinely coming in first in test results. Now, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in the richest country on earth are in 24th place in math. That’s behind Canada, Germany, France, Korea… but also smaller, poorer countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

This sounds like “A Nation at Risk” all over again. That was 1983. Today is April 15th, 2006. What is not written here is how we’re comparing apples to oranges with these sorts of statements. In the United States, everyone gets to go to school. It’s called compulsory public education. And we’re not tracked into vocational and college-bound tracks at an early age. Many other countries do not test their entire student population. In many cases, doing comparisons like those above are analogous to taking just the GT students (those officially in the “gifted and talented” program) from one US school and comparing their test scores against the average of ALL the students at another one.

The article is not full of heresay, however. Even if the piece starts with some slanted use of educational statistics, the core messages are valid in my view. I agree with this comment from Melinda Gates:

Kids are falling through the cracks and nobody notices it. That to me is what’s wrong with the school system.

Melinda is right. What we need in schools are more relationships and conversations. We need teachers who are provided with the TIME and ENCOURAGEMENT to connect regularly with their students. This what the 3 R’s movement is about: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Some folks (unnamed here) have added a 4th “R” to this list: “Results.” My perception is that this amendment is an attempt to hijack the validity of the 3 R’s and make them fit into a contemporary, status quo, high-stakes accountability frame. Definitely a mistake. If we keep measuring results the way we are now under NCLB and through what others (in other states) ignorantly call “The Texas Miracle,” we’ll keep going down the wrong path.

The Gates Foundation is right on target asking the following question:

What good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?

These issues are not just systemic: They are also about what individuals (teachers, students, and administrators) within our school systems are choosing to do regularly, as matters of habit. We are defined by our habits. And what seems to be happening more and more (as a matter of habit) is that students are engaged and motivated in schools (dominated by high-stakes testing mentalities) less and less.

Dropouts are a huge symptom and sign of the problem. As Bill observes:

Millions of kids are dropping out… Of minorities, half drop out. Overall it’s about a third.

Many of the students who stay in school are not adequately prepared for college, however. According to Melinda:

Of kids who are going to college, more than 40 percent are doing remedial work. All these kids are dropping out, [but] the ones making it through are not even prepared for college.

These students need to develop better literacy skills in school! They need to learn to read the word and the world. Getting students motivated to read, write, and communicate in school settings and for educational purposes is more than half the battle. That is why blogging, podcasting, social networking tools and other web 2.0 resources can play a pivotal role in 21st century engaged learning environments.

But technology immersion or integration is not at the heart of the solution our schools need to improve. They can be part of the answer, in-so-far as they can be powerful tools used to engage, teach and learn, but they are not at the heart of the solution. There are three key elements to the solution:

  1. Money: We need adequate and equitable educational funding for ALL students from ALL socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
  2. Teachers: We need teachers who can take the TIME required to teach from their personal passions, to challenge each student to exceed their own expectations of achievement, and view the educational experience as fundamentally a complex conversation and a rigorous, interactive process rather than a simple transmission of facts and details. And we REALLY need to work on retaining these types of teachers in our educational system.
  3. Autonomy: We need to trust teachers as well as school administrators, and empower them to locally define curricula and assessment standards. Campus principals need authority to hire and fire teachers at will, like businesses and corporations.

The Oprah interview article discusses school funding inequities in the Chicago area. The issue of inequitable school funding reminds me that our special legislative session (on school finance issues) begins here in Texas on Monday. This debate has been going on for decades, and it is still unresolved. All the Republicans (and probably many Democrats) seem to want more than anything to be known to constituents for cutting taxes, rather than stepping up to the plate and acting responsibly in the interest of the state’s children and parents.

Who wants to pay more taxes? No one. But why do we have taxes? The original reason was to not fund things like Congressional pension plans. At the state level, I think the lion’s share of our budget goes two places: to prisons and to education. But that educational system remains extremely inequitable. Why? Because it remains funded primarily through property taxes. And why has that not changed? Probably because the wealthiest constituents, who tend to be the most vocal legislatively, are happy with this setup. They get the best schools, and the rest of the state “gets what they get.”

Am I being overly cynical and pessimistic here? Perhaps. But I do marvel (sadly) that this debate has remained unresolved for so long. We have very smart people in our state and federal legislatures. They should be able to figure this out and resolve it. The problem, I fear, is that there is not a sufficient economic and moral incentive (from the perspective of policymakers) to make the hard decisions which are required.

We don’t just need more money to fund the existing system which has systemic problems. We do need to pay teachers more, but we need teachers and administrators who are empowered to innovate and collaborate. We need administrators to be empowered to fire teachers who are just coasting. I call these the “dead wood” teachers. We have them in higher education too. But in order to do that, we need assessment mechanisms that are separated from the current student assessment system. David Berliner has written extensively on this, along with others. He is actually coming to the Texas Tech College of Education later this year to speak, and I am looking forward to hearing him (hopefully) address this issue and others related to school reform.

Some very important issues about school reform, student dropouts, teacher expectations, and school finance are raised by the Oprah interview article with Bill and Melinda. The story about “swapping schools” makes me think of forced bussing in the US to deal with segregation and inequitable school situations in the 1960s and 1970s. Those efforts have been abandoned entirely where I live in Texas, apparently because “magnet schools” have supposedly addressed the segregation issues. Unfortunately, they have not. I need to read Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools” for more insight into this… it is high on my future reading list.

No simple answers here, but lots of complex problems. These are real world problems, after all. Just the kinds our students need to be challenged to address and help solve in schools. Who better to help us figure out the best answers, along with teachers and parents who really care about them too?

There is not ONE SINGLE ANSWER, and the best answer is not likely to be one legislated from on-high. The best answers will come from the bottom, from the wisdom of the crowd. We need leadership that can listen to those voices and advance policies which support diverse responses to these challenges.

Oprah’s readers and poll respondents want to forcibly keep students in schools:

According to our Oprah Winfrey Show-Time magazine poll, 62 percent of respondents said the government should forbid students who are under 18 from dropping out of school.

What are they going to do, get the police involved and handcuff kids to school desks bolted to the floor? Maybe this is exactly the wrong direction we should be going. Maybe instead of making dropping out of school a crime, we should make public education optional as Dr. David Johnasen suggests. I don’t think we should stop providing a free public education for every child in the United States. And I do not support the privatization of public schools. I do support (fervently) charter schools. But I know we can’t just demand more money for the existing system and expect different results. That is “insanity” defined, isn’t it?!

We need to find a way to imbue our educational system with a dynamic of positive pressure that leads to excellence rather than mediocrity. Rather than uniform, centrally mandated curriculum standards, we need to free states and local educators to develop curricula and authentic assessment measures. Rather than seeking wholly defined, technocratic, top-down solutions, we should embrace more empowering and authority-devolving dynamical solutions.

I have probably written too much in this post, but as with most of my blogging, I am writing more for myself than for anyone else’s consumption. Writing is an essential part of my own learning process and educational journey. The following quotation by Doug Noon, quoted by Will Richardson, seems appropriate to reflect on as I conclude this thread of inquiry for today:

Normative claims that masquerade as objective truth are tools of propaganda. Fear and lies serve devious ends. Do not allow people to use terms like achievement gap, failure, or proficiency without challenging their meaning. The problem isn’t simply “failing” schools. Schools are being asked to clean up a broadly distributed social mess caused by centuries of materialism and greed. Education has been colonized. We are being trampled by our rescuers. This is not a new story.

So Bill and Melinda are terrified. Maybe Oprah is too. I don’t know. I am glad they’ve created the Stand Up Website: A Response to America’s Education Crisis. But I’m not scared. I’m mad, and I’m motivated to both write and act, but I’m not scared. Because as I said at the end of my keynote presentation in Fort Worth recently, I have tremendous faith in teachers and the creative abilities of human beings– not just citizens of the United States, but citizens of the world. We are powerfully creative, transcendent organisms– especially when we cooperate and work together. We can figure this out, and make it better.

And someday, we will. Hopefully soon, because 2 of my kids are in our public schools now, and the 3rd will be joining soon. But we need to do this for other reasons that go beyond the educations of our own children. We need to do this for everyone’s children. I hope to be part of the conversation that leads to those solutions. You can as well. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in Maxims for Revolutionists:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I know that a lot of what I write about here may sound unreasonable to many. But that’s fine. Because I am not interested in merely perpetuating the status quo. I’m here to be part of the revolution, and lead it if necessary. We’re not just reading and writing the web here. We’re writing our own destinies, for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren.

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On this day..



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3 responses to “Bill and Melinda are Terrified”

  1. Michael Avatar

    I guess all I can say is why does it always come to this? Why does it take scaring the heck out of people to get them to do something? BTW that is a very long post you have there.

  2. Scott S. Floyd Avatar
    Scott S. Floyd

    There are a few things I would like to respond to. First of all, I want to thank you for recognizing the difference in the way nations test. While I work very closely with senators and representatives, they find the argument a cop-out on our part as educators. They think our lowest should compete with the best from other nations. While I love that goal and optimism, I also live the reality as a teacher, and I cannot control the home life or genetics of so many of our students.

    Of course, there are those out there wanting to add Results to the list. They think it is the end-all, beat-all for proving who is doing his or her job. Perry, et al has lost touch with reality. I do prefer Strayhorn’s idea of moving the testing to the beginning of the year to have it used as a diagnostic tool and a guiding instrument for working with each student. However, I guess that is not politically correct, is it?

    Web 2.0 is an awesome set of tools for us to engage our students in the learning process. This leads me to the next point. While I am self-motivated and search out great blogs, podcasts, and books to learn from, many teachers do not (for whatever reason). There should be in place the opportunity for teachers to access extensive, hands-on professional development in the new instructional and learning aids. They should also have the same availability to content area training. Sure, ESC’s can offer this in many instances. But there is more out there than what they are willing to consider. The key here is that this training should be paid for and the educator’s time compensated. This will further encourage them to continue their education. Many teachers have to work extra jobs just to make ends meet. This goes double for men in the industry who are trying to be the main bread-winner of the family. Male influences are desperately needed in the classroom, yet the state fails to recognize that low salaries are driving men out of education. Not every district pays the exorbitant (actually, more on target) amount that the urban districts do.

    Money is the key here. When you have so many diverse students with issues just as diverse, there has to be exemplary funding to aid them. For example, a small district with dyslexic students can easily expend four or five thousand dollars per student in just that area. That is money not provided by the state adequately. These are the kids suffering when districts cannot deliver and when the state refuses.

    I feel there is a fourth item to add to your list of key elements to the solution: positive parental involvement. You hinted at this one even if it was unconsciously when you mentioned “parents that really care about them too.” It is funny that we can regulate everything but the most important job a human could have. Instead, the kids pay the price. The onus is on the school to raise the students as well as educate them. Then time becomes an issue. We spend so much time on both things that both suffer. Time cannot be manufactured, and the state is not giving it away. They are using it up faster and faster each time they meet in Austin and “reform” education. Twelve hours a day is not enough to do what we need to be doing already. So that leaves us needing to be more efficient with our time. Web 2.0 can help us with that as well.

    You quoted Shaw. I quote James (1:2-4 as a matter of fact). “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” I have to have something to hang onto during these trying times in under-funded education.

  3. Doug Noon Avatar

    Wesley, this is an important topic. As time passes we’ll see people continue to “pile on” and add more heat to the fire without shining any more light on the problem. Nobody wants to take responsibility. I don’t understand why doctors aren’t blamed for sickness, and the police aren’t held responsible for crime.

    Susan Ohanian has been posting information about Oprah in the Ourtrages section of her site. Susan’s a fireball, and she’s a shining light for teachers who feel oppressed by unrealistic expectations.

    I found a copy of Kozol’s Savage Inequalities today at a used bookstore. I bought it because I enjoyed Shame of the Nation, which I read last week. If the problem of inequitable schooling isn’t intentionally racist, it has that effect nonetheless since most of the underfunded schools are attended predominantly by Blacks and Hispanics.

    If any good is to come out of this misguided attempt to blame schools for the failures of our society, it will be in helping us to begin defining a democratic vision for public schooling. We need to begin forging a positive vision, and find ways to make it real in the face of this other noise from people like Gates and Oprah, and Bush. What is necessary for that to happen, though, is for teachers to become alert to the damage this discussion is causing, and to speak out loudly. We need to talk back. Thank you for lending your voice to the cause.